Remembering Andre Brink

27 Feb 2015 - 21:15

Remembering Andre Brink 

By Kate Burling

Andre Brink passed away this month whilst returning home to South Africa from Belgium, travelling between the two continents that had shaped his life and inspired his work. Born and raised in the Free State, Brink was based in Cape Town from 1990 onward where he taught English at UCT until his retirement.  He remained an Honorary Professor at UCT and left behind him the remarkable legacy of a life devoted to literature. Brink’s oeuvre of award-winning novels, plays and short stories, his scholarly work, literary criticism and translations, his memoirs and travel writing spanned six decades and traced South Africa’s transition from the era of high apartheid to democracy.

Andre  Brink (1935-2015)

Brink had gone to Belgium in early February to receive an honorary doctorate from the Université Catholique de Louvain, the last in a lifetime’s tributes and awards which included two short-listings for the Booker Prize (in 1976 for An Instant in the Wind and 1978 for Rumours of Rain) and nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His most recent novel, Philida, which was published in 2012, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and drew praise from fellow novelist Patrick Flannery, who acknowledged Brink among those important writers willing “to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries” Daily Telegraph, September 2012.)

Born in 1935 into the Afrikaner community of Vrede, Brink’s debut novel, Lobola Vir Die Lewe appeared in the early 1960’s - a decade in which he became a key member of the influential Afrikaans literary movement, ‘Die Sestigers’ (‘The Sixty-ers’), along with Breyten Breytenbach and Ingrid Jonker. Using the language of Afrikaans to challenge the apartheid government, the movement also introduced the influences of contemporary English and French literature and philosophical thought into Afrikaans writing. In 1973, Brink’s novel Kennis Van Die Aand was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the South African government, setting a trend for other of his works – in both English and Afrikaans – for several years to come. While Brink wrote his novels in both languages, his books – amounting to more than 60 published titles - have also been translated into 33 languages world-wide.

Brink, Yonker and Breytenbach

After completing post-graduate studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, he taught at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape for a number of years, before moving to Cape Town. Remembering Brink from his days at UCT, colleague and fellow professor in the English Department John Higgins recalls a consummate story-teller and passionate teacher who was unpretentious and accessible to his students. According to Higgins, Brink relished teaching at all levels and was able to communicate “a joyous juvenile enthusiasm” about literature to his students, as well as encouraging fledgling writers with “open, generous and perceptive” readings of their work.

In an interview with Brink which Higgins wrote for The Guardian in 1999 after the publication of Devil’s Valley - ‘What You Never Knew You Knew: An Interview with Andre Brink’, the novelist reflected on the enduring appeal of teaching: “I know it will be a very sad moment when I move out of teaching. I try and share with the students whatever it is I am excited about – and suddenly you get the lecture where a spark jumps across, and you get the most unexpected and exciting things coming back from the students. That feeling of being in touch with what is happening to at least some members of a young generation helps to keep one mentally alive.”

For Higgins, Brink “embodied the love of literature”. He recalls “a prodigious Balzacian energy for his fiction, criticism and translations which helped hybridize and provoke an Afrikaans literary culture – certainly at some personal and familial cost”. In the same interview Brink had described his break from “the laager… and specific values of Afrikanerdom” and his conflict with his family and peers: “I suffered nothing compared to Black writers or to a writer like Athol Fugard… but it wasn’t easy, certainly not. It looks slightly easier now, looking back; but at the time it was pretty grim… I was very conscious of what ostracism meant…” As Higgins reflects, particularly with regard to some of the criticism Brink’s work has attracted since South Africa’s transition to democracy, “From our position here and now, it’s easy to forget how things must have been then for a writer like Brink.”

Brink Legacy

It is all the more interesting therefore to hear Higgins describe Brink’s work in terms of transnational writing – a way of thinking about literature currently much in vogue. “For him, Literature always had a capital ‘L’,” Higgins insists. “It was transnational. It went beyond the boundaries of nation - and because of that it forced him to face up to the brutal nastiness of Apartheid and other issues with an energy and expansiveness that was remarkable”.

How fitting then that Brink’s life should have ended where he had instinctively positioned his work: beyond borders, over Africa, making for home.

A public memorial for Brink will be hosted by the University of Cape Town on Monday, 2 March, in the Wilfred and Jules Kramer Law Building (Lecture Theatre 1) on Middle Campus at 19h00